What Is Vicarious Liability in a Medical Malpractice Claim?

In some medical malpractice cases, vicarious liability may play a role if hospitals or other entities are liable for their employees’ negligence. Knowing more about what vicarious liability is and how it works may help you determine if this form of liability is involved in a medical malpractice case.

Handcuffed vicariously liable Cosmetic Surgeon with scalpel in hand

What Is Vicarious Liability?

Vicarious liability occurs when plaintiffs or courts hold parent entities, such as hospitals or other medical facilities, responsible for damages resulting from the negligence of a doctor or another employee. According to the vicarious liability legal definition from Cornell Law School, it entails “liability that a supervisory party bears for the actionable conduct of a subordinate or associate based on the relationship between the two parties.”

If a medical malpractice lawsuit involves vicarious liability, it will also involve the respondeat superior theory to help confirm vicarious liability.

The phrase “respondeat superior” means “let the master answer” and is a theory that holds entities liable for the actions of their employees. The principle of respondeat superior applies to many organizations, including medical facilities along with other entities in relation to their employees.

Generally, if an employee’s negligence occurred within his or her scope of employment, the theory of respondeat superior will apply. As a result, vicarious liability may apply under the following circumstances:

  • An employee’s negligence caused harm during work hours
  • The employee’s negligence caused harm while the employee performed a job-related task
  • The employer benefited from the employee’s work when the negligence took place

If these circumstances apply to a medical malpractice case, the employer may be held liable for damages resulting from the employee’s negligence, including negligence on the part of medical professionals during work hours.

How Vicarious Liability Applies to Doctors

Doctors may engage in malpractice on the job that could make their employers liable, depending on the circumstances. 

Some incidents where vicarious liability may apply to doctors include misdiagnosis, failure to follow up with patients, surgical mistakes, medication errors, and carelessly monitoring the patient’s condition.

Doctors may also be liable under the principle of respondeat superior if they are in charge of a group of other medical professionals whose negligence results in another’s harm.

One vicarious liability example involving a doctor might be a surgeon who manages a team of nurses and technicians who help him or her perform the surgery. If one of these staff members causes harm to the patient at any point during the surgery, the doctor may be liable if the patient or his or her loved ones can determine vicarious liability. The doctor may have allowed unqualified employees to assist him or her, or the surgeon may have failed to provide proper training or instructions to employees, resulting in injuries to the patient.

A doctor or another employer may also be liable for medical student malpractice if he or she allowed the student to perform procedures the student wasn’t qualified to perform, causing injuries in the process.

Possible Defenses to Vicarious Liability

If a doctor, hospital, or another employer is the subject of a medical malpractice case involving vicarious liability, the employer may work to defend against these allegations and disprove liability. 

Claiming the Employee Is an Independent Contractor

One of the most common methods used to defend against vicarious liability is to show that the employee doesn’t qualify as an actual employee. For example, the employer may be able to show that the negligent doctor or another employee worked as an independent contractor and wasn’t working for the employer as a full-time staff member. The employer may specifically prove this by presenting evidence revealing that the employee wasn’t under the employer’s control or direction, that the employer wasn’t financially responsible for compensating the employee for his or her work, or that there wasn’t a true employee-employer relationship at the time of the incident.

Claiming the Employee Wasn’t Working Within the Scope of His or Her Employment

In other cases, employers may attempt to argue that the employee wasn’t working within the scope of his or her employment at the time of the incident. 

For example, an employer may be able to prove that the employee engaged in negligence and caused injuries to a patient while off the clock or when performing tasks that weren’t related to his or her job. 

With the help of a medical malpractice lawyer, plaintiffs in these cases may be able to effectively counter these defenses. For instance, evidence in the form of paperwork, security footage, or other documentation may prove that the employee’s negligence occurred while performing activities within the scope of employment. Attorneys may also be able to obtain a copy of documentation showing that the employee was a true employee and not an independent contractor.

How to Increase Your Chances of Succeeding With a Medical Malpractice Claim

If you or a loved one sustains injuries and believe medical malpractice was the cause, you may be able to file a lawsuit against liable doctors and, if vicarious liability is involved, against the doctors’ employers. A medical malpractice lawsuit may help you recover total compensation for all damages resulting from negligence, including financial and personal losses from medical bills to pain and suffering.

Like other medical malpractice cases, those involving vicarious liability will require the right approach to reach a favorable outcome. The following are some steps to take to increase your chances of winning a medical malpractice suit against liable medical professionals and their employers.

Don’t Wait to File Your Claim or Lawsuit

One important step to take is to avoid building your case too late. You only have a limited amount of time to file a lawsuit against negligent medical professionals before you’re unable to seek compensation.

Every state has a specific statute of limitations, giving you a limited amount of time to file a medical malpractice lawsuit. This statute typically begins from the time of the incident and discovery of injuries and runs for two or more years. While it may seem like you have plenty of time, the statute of limitations can quickly run out, at which point you may be without legal options to recover the compensation you deserve.

The sooner you begin building your case and file a suit, the sooner you can be on your way to compensation as medical bills and other expenses mount.

Collect Ample Evidence

Another critical step to take is to collect sufficient evidence to support your case. You may be able to obtain copies of medical records proving the extent of your injuries, along with other evidence, such as the employee-employer agreement between the negligent doctor and his or her employer. 

It may be difficult to collect all necessary evidence on your own, which is where a medical or hospital malpractice lawyer can help.

Prove Breach of Duty

When proving that medical malpractice took place, you must prove several key items, including:

  • That the medical professional owed you a duty of care
  • That the professional breached that duty of care
  • That this breach of duty of care caused injuries to you or a loved one
  • That these injuries stemming from the breach of duty resulted in damages, including medical expenses and personal losses

It can be difficult to prove these items in a case, especially if the medical professional argues that his or her behavior would be considered reasonable among others in a similar position. 

Consult an Attorney

Medical malpractice cases are often complex and difficult to file against negligent doctors and their employers. You may need to prove not only the doctor’s liability, but that his or her employer was vicariously liable at the time of the initial incident. 

If you need help with your medical malpractice case, it’s best to consult a reputable medical malpractice attorney. A lawyer with experience in this practice area can meet with you in a consultation to discuss a potential case and explain how to prove medical malpractice. He or she will be able to assess the details involved and determine the chances of succeeding with a lawsuit.

If the attorney ultimately decides to represent you, the next step would be to collect all relevant evidence and organize it to prove liability. The attorney can also help you navigate the claims process during negotiations, or take the case to court if the case goes to trial.

Understanding Vicarious Liability

In the event of an instance of medical malpractice, you may be able to recover compensation from all liable parties involved, which may extend beyond negligent medical professionals to their employers. If the employee engaged in negligent behavior within the scope of employment, you may have grounds for proving vicarious liability on the part of the employer. Taking the right approach to your case may help prove vicarious liability and enable you to succeed with a medical malpractice suit.

Chicago personal injury and workers’ compensation attorney Howard Ankin has a passion for justice and a relentless commitment to defending injured victims throughout the Chicagoland area. With decades of experience achieving justice on behalf of the people of Chicago, Howard has earned a reputation as a proven leader in and out of the courtroom. Respected by peers and clients alike, Howard’s multifaceted approach to the law and empathetic nature have secured him a spot as an influential figure in the Illinois legal system.

Years of Experience: More than 30 years
Illinois Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: Illinois State Bar Association, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, U.S. District Court, Central District of Illinois
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